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Disneyland and Universal Studios: genres or single IPs, forest or trees?

star wars expansion disney parks swimming

Disneyland and Universal Studios are both hugely successful theme parks. However, is Disney’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge part of a broader trend, as the mouse moves away from genre led to IP focussed design?

By Sam Gennawey (right)sam gennawey

They are going to charge guests staying at a Walt Disney World resort hotel for parking? It’s the end of the world as we know it.

Okay, maybe I am going a bit far. But, I have spent a lot of mental energy documenting the creative process behind the Disney and Universal theme parks and trying to lock down their DNA. Think of it as the difference between an Android phone and an iPhone.

Disneyland sells the forest, Universal the trees

The two phone operating systems do roughly the same thing but people are emotionally committed to one or the other. It is the same way with theme parks. There is a DNA difference that is slight yet fundamental between the two companies and their approach toward location based entertainment.

Leave it to a top advertising copywriter to nail the difference. Hal Kaufman was working for the advertising firm Foote, Cone & Belding and assigned to the 1990 grand opening of Universal Studios Florida. He described the challenge of going against Disney. What Disney did well was selling the forest. “If one of the Disney parks burnt down tomorrow,” Kaufman said, “They would be able to advertise “come feel the warmth’ and people would visit. Universal’s strength was selling the trees; promoting one attraction at a time. Each attraction was marketed like the release of a major motion picture.”

A thing about pirates

My focus is usually on theme park design. Let’s look at Disneyland. The lands are not organized around different IPs (intellectual properties), they are based on timeless entertainment genres. The frontier, adventure, fantasy, cartoons, the future, and the past. The fact that Walt Disney could slap the laminate of a familiar story on one of his rides, would put him light years ahead of his competition.mattherhorn bobsled by elf

After all, how many today remember that the Matterhorn Bobsleds were tied to a movie about a mountain that had no bobsleds? For Walt, I think he was just happy he could hide the ugly metal tower for the sky bucket ride. Heck, he could even stick in rides that had nothing to do with any of his movies. Had a thing about pirates going back to earliest days of the park. Pirates, not a movie but the genre. It worked.

Universal Studios was different. In Los Angeles, its primary local purpose was to be the place you took out-of-towners to see Hollywood because the real Hollywood was kind of scary. Jay Stein had an authentic back lot tour. He figured out pretty quickly that he needed to have one new thing a year to advertise to make it worth the local’s time and skip one of the other Los Angeles diversions. When he started to tap his network of producers he met back in the day when was working on the production side of Universal, he started to link his annual project to a familiar movie or television show. It was cheap. The IP came for free. He usually had to pay off the actors for their likeness. It worked.

The move from genre to IPs

But it is the original Disney park in Anaheim that will now see a fundamental change and that has a lot of people I know talking. Now, let’s take a step back an look at Disney history. The move from genres to single IPs actually started a long time ago. First came EPCOT Center in 1982. Not a big hit. In fact, it was even dragging down the Magic Kingdom. Epcot started with two basic themes. In the front, Ideas are wrapped in provocative architecture with the intent to inspire. In the back, inspiration continues with a make believe tour of the world’s culture organized around a suburban cul-de-sac. Today, is Future World really about ideas? I could argue that the World Showcase is evolving into the new Disney back lot where you get to be involved with characters in their natural environments.

Disney Hollywood Studios started as an MBA’s answer to the upcoming competition from Universal. The same logic for Disney California Adventure. This time the competition was the State of California. Eisner was ambitious. Both parks have changed and now exist without coherent overall themes. Disney Animal Kingdom and Tokyo DisneySea have remained true to themselves and their core themes.

Walt Disney World Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge themed hotel

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge

Even Disneyland has been there. When the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge (Star Wars Land) area opens in 2019, it will be the third time that Disneyland has forgone the genre idea and focused on a single IP. The first was Holidayland in 1957. The corporate special events area was just outside the berm. There was a little portal between Holidayland and the park by walking through a tunnel underneath the Disneyland Railroad. The “land” lasted until 1961 when Walt decided he needed the property for his haunted house walk through.

The second was Bear Country in 1972. There was one show from Florida, a shop, and a very long bar. That area soon became filled with other…critters…and became Critter Country. Not really a genre but face it, how many people can name the source material for Splash Mountain? Plus, Winnie the Pooh is across the path. More critters.

The next try will be in 2019. On a lighthearted note, I expect Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge (Star Wars Land) may be a lot more like Holidayland than people expect at the beginning. Taking advantage of its location outside the berm (i.e. on the other side of the railroad tracks, outside of the park), there are three distinct portals. I don’t think I need to get into any more trouble with Disney officials at this point but imagine the upcharge opportunities.

The addition of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is another example in a long trend.

Collecting the IPs

Long point short. I believe that the design of the Disney parks has moved more toward the Universal model than Universal has moved toward the Disney model. The focus is on the tree. Place it wherever there is room in the forest. Both parent companies are in a battle to collect as many popular culture icons as they can and they have the financial means to do so. At this point, they have file drawers full of IPs to exploit.

For fans, the good news is that the bar has been raised. The competition to see who can create the best highly immersive destination that will drive merchandise sales is on. Remember, Disney Parks is now part of the merchandise division. They are motivated.

The bad news, probably only impacting an old geek like me, is that my beloved Disneyland is moving away from Walt’s basic plan. This was to organize timeless stories by genre, just like a library. Then to allow people to discover the stories, the one they visit and the ones they make up with their own imagination.

Images c Disney, Mattherhorn bobsled Elf.

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Sam Gennawey

Sam Gennawey is an author, award-winning urban planner, and public speaker. He lives in Los Angeles California.

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